Music Post: Concertos for Multiple Soloists

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Isaac Stern, left, and Yo-Yo Ma, right, performing the Brahms Double Concerto in Japan.

“Multiple soloists” sounds like an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.”

But as long as they take turns taking solos, I guess it’s accurate to call them soloists. It does raise the intriguing question of whether two soloists always playing together are really duetists. Remember I raised this issue when I get to Robert Schumann in a minute.

The concept of soloists and back-up musicians dates back to antiquity. So often one gathers musicians of unequal training and skill. Baroque music nearly always made a distinction between the concertino – featured musicians playing hard parts, and the ripieno – back-up musicians playing easier parts.

These terms – ripieno is the Italian word for stuffing or padding – date from the 1600s when princes and other regional lords would employ one or two or three full-time musicians, padding out the estate orchestra with a combination of family members and servants. Even a princess or stablehand might be able to saw away at a violin a bit, while the professional plays the difficult notes. Haydn faced this situation on the Esterhazy estate in the mid-1700s. In fairness it should be noted that musical instruction was then considered an integral part of a broad education, and working class families often worked to nurture musical talent in any child who displayed any, as means of making a future living.

Whole families were devoted to the musical profession, children learning from parents, uncles and elder siblings from a tender age – Bach was a fifth generation organist – and child prodigies were given every encouragement, including money from the wealthy for talented children of meager means. It was inevitable that the best musicians would get better, until, by Haydn’s day, musicians would tour as soloists, often composing their own material. Mozart did.

The concerto concept spread in the late Baroque, when Vivaldi wrote many concertos to feature violin or other instruments, and when Bach, in his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, did an ur-concerto for keyboard. Bach did a concerto for two violins; Vivaldi wrote pieces featuring flute; a Vivaldi concerto for four violins was arranged by Bach to become a concerto for four harpsichords.

By Beethoven’s day, in the very early 1800s, concertos were well-established in style and format. Beethoven played with format expectations in his Fourth Piano Concerto, which dispenses with the bombastic orchestral opening in favor of a quiet solo piano passage. Later he plays with his audience’s expectations less subtly when, after a typical cadence to cue a solo (cadenza) he has the soloist improvise, at least at first, on the cadence itself instead of the main theme.

Beethoven also defied conventions by composing a Triple Concerto, featuring piano, violin and cello. I do not claim it is his best work, and neither did he. Managing musical material is hard when three different soloists all want a crack at a theme. And in 1887 Brahms got mixed reviews for a Double Concerto featuring violin and cello. It’s 50% more effective than the Beethoven.

In 1849, inspired by the invention of valves for “French horns,” allowing horn players to play half steps and chromatic passages, Robert Schumann composed a Konzertstuck for Four Horns & Orchestra. It’s considered difficult to perform even today; at the time, nearly impossible. But the work, especially the opening movement, is glorious, in part because Schumann often treats the four as a single instrument, producing chordal passages of amazing effect.

Multiple-soloist concertos challenged and intrigued several 20th century composers.

In 1911 Max Bruch wrote a double featuring clarinet and viola.

In 1915 Frederick Delius did a concerto for violin and cello. Like much of Delius’s music it is too atmospheric to be much of a concert showpiece but is pleasant to hear in the comfort of your home.

In 1932 Francis Poulenc composed a Concerto for Two Pianos & Orchestra which is very much a concert showpiece and great good fun to hear anywhere else. Poulenc’s five keyboard concertos also include one for harpsichord and one for organ and they’re all good. Igor Stravinsky also wrote a concerto for two pianos.

In 1937 Bela Bartok wrote a Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion & Orchestra. Actually it started as a chamber work but was later orchestrated. It is still performed both ways.

In 1966 Miklos Rozsa wrote a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello & Orchestra. The Hollywood soundtrack composer wrote especially well for cello.

Gustav Holst, who taught music at the St. Paul’s School for Girls most of his adult life, wrote a lot of music for the girls to play, including a 1929 Concerto for Two Violins & Orchestra that is excellent. He also wrote “A Fugal Concerto for Flute, Oboe & Strings.”

Joaquin Rodrigo, so famous for his guitar concertos (and he also composed good concertos for cello, violin, piano, flute and harp) wrote one for four guitars called “Concierto Anduluz.”

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